When looking at indicators for successful recovery from mental illness, I’ve sometimes seen intelligence, IQ or cognitive abilities mentioned. Personally, I haven’t often viewed my own intelligence with much favor. After all, what good is an above average IQ, if you can’t even manage to keep your own kitchen in order? Furthermore, if you’ve found your IQ score a little on the low side, don’t worry. Like your muscles, you can improve your “brain power” with training – and as I explain later, being good at puzzles doesn’t necessarily mean being good at living. But that too is a matter of training and practice.
So, when talking about cognitive training, what is it exactly we’re talking about?
Cognitive psychology covers everything from critical thinking to attention and memory. It is what we use when we read, write, remember tasks and shopping lists, follow conversations and work on puzzles and challenges among other things. When you recall items on your shopping list, search out a particular item on the shop shelves or spot a friend in the crowd, you use your cognition to do so.
Attention and memory in particular have been shown to suffer when a person is in a state of prolonged stress. You might notice that you forget more easily or have a harder time concentrating on tasks when you’re under great pressure, especially if you’ve been under pressure for a long time.
So, how does cognitive training work? Simply by using your brain. You can easily find several good “brain training” around. On the App store on my phone, I found Brain Training by Triangle Labs Inc., Elevate by Elevate Labs and Lumosity by Lumos Labs Inc. for free. Even well-known puzzle and memory games like crossword puzzles and the like can be used to train your attention, concentration and memory – or various video games for that matter. However, you can sit all day and “git gud” at a game, but then all you do is get really good at that one particular game. The trick is to combine several games to train different skills and then transfer those skills into everyday life.
I, for instance have struggled a great deal with concentration and memory. I couldn’t concentrate on my studies and couldn’t remember the texts I’d read. I’d also constantly lose focus and had trouble keeping track of conversations. And yet I had little trouble remembering every Pokemon and their types, attacks and weaknesses. Or follow the juicy development between the main characters of this or that cheap romance novel.
So, I joined a cognitive training group to try and figure out what exactly was going wrong and try and train my brain not only to remember Pokemons, but shopping lists and scientific articles too.
The cognitive training part of the group consisted of playing especially developed games on the computer, where you use various parts of your brain to solve problems. There’re attention and memory games, where you remember figures and where on the screen you saw them, names and faces, spoken messages and puzzles like the Tower of Hanoi. Each game started would start out easy, then slowly grow in difficulty.
The games themselves were a lot of fun, but the really helpful part of the group was spending time in the group as a whole talking about the similarities between the games and tasks in our daily lives.
Suddenly, the Tower of Hanoi wasn’t just neat little disks on pegs, but piles of boxes in a cramped room that need to be moved to create more space or the random figure somewhere on your screen became your keys located somewhere in your room.
We also spent a lot of time learning each other’s names, going over a couple helpful strategies. Names and faces are a real chore to remember, especially when you have to remember a lot at once. But you can help your memory along by creating connections or more meaning. Like, “Her name is Mary, like my aunt”, “Michael likes knit sweaters”, “Basil like the spice” or “Stella is a star”. Then, when you see the person, you can help your memory along. My aunt = Mary. Knit sweater = Michael etc.
The cognitive training didn’t only stay on the computer, but was pulled into daily living and chores. When you clean up your room, you locate objects, identify them and categorize them to place them in their rightful places. Granted, real life is three-dimensional and full of distractions, but the task in and of itself is the same. It’s just like the computer game, but in hard mode. Once your brain becomes accustomed to performing the task in simple 2D on the computer, it becomes easier to perform in real life. All you need is to make the connection between the game and the real life task and your brain will know what’s needed.
Over the course of the group, I found motivation and interest in the computer games waning, but I’m still using my brain every day, concentrating on tasks and chores, remembering said tasks and chores and how to perform them. It’s become a fun, little exercise when I’m playing a game to try and think of ways how the game translates into real life.
One really helpful technique I’ve learned from the group is to chop up big tasks into smaller tasks and steps. Dishes get divided up by category, so a big pile of dishes becomes smaller, more manageable piles by category: cutlery, plates, cups and finally pots and pans. Cleaning and tidying is similarly cut up into steps. When tidying my room, I start by sorting the trash, then the laundry. Then I usually lose momentum and end up in front of the computer until the trash and laundry piles up again. But once each item has a box, place or category, it becomes easier to deal with. Feels like I’ve mentioned something like this before on the blog somewhere… well, memory’s still not the greatest, but it’s getting better, I think.
Have I mentioned I also find lists and plans helpful? Writing down each step needed to perform a task and how to do it helps keep focus and reduces a big chore to simply following a set of instructions. Cleaning the bathroom starts with filling up a bucket with soapy water, gathering up the necessary supplies and then starting pouring some cleaning solvent into the toilet, then with washing the walls, the sink and shower finishing cleaning the toilet and then the floor. Like following a recipe when baking.
Nowadays, I’m maybe still not at the level of scientific articles, but I’ve slowly upgraded to more meaty texts than cheap romance novels and at least shopping lists aren’t a problem anymore.